TeachSurfing is a free web application for travelers and organizations to make contact and arrange volunteer classes or workshops globally in a very easy way.
I heard about this project from Kolba Lab and myself being a Couchsurfing ambassador for many years, I got really excited that such an initiative came to life and that the person behind the project is an Armenian lady. For me the main reason to couchsurf/host was the exchange of ideas, knowledge and culture, so this project seemed to combine it all and I decided to meet up with Miganoush Magarian to find out more about it.
How you got started and current situation
"The idea started at 2012 after I got the chance to attend One Young World summit which inspired me to set the goal to present a project on the stage of the summit next year. Me and my colleague Greta have a background in software engineering and decided to create this project as we always want to return to our community and try to inspire them and encourage them to reach something bigger and TeachSurfing would give a chance not only for expats going home but also for travelers to share their knowledge everywhere they go.
I work at software enterprise company SAP innovation center in Potsdam Germany and when I told them about my project they agreed to provide a team of 4 students for developing TeachSurfing under the supervison of Gretta and myself. We basically pushed the company to collaborate and provide resources. A couple of months later, we had a prototype ready and then we started productizing it. SAP helped a lot to turn this project into a certified product. This was a part time project for me and then the manager agreed to give us a full year to proceed with the project.
After we presented the project at One Young World Summit in 2013 we only had a landing page and got 300 base users from the summit itself which were in our network. Since then and now, the prototype has been iterated and successfully productized. TeachSurfing.org is now officially live and right now we are concentrating on Teachsurfing Wave Armenia, trying to find partner organisations to work with and if the model works here we will do the same for other countries too. We started TeachSurfing Wave Armenia since May 2015, and already now we have 9 local partners, 13 organization with their learning needs and most exciting we already have number of TeachSurfing success stories in Armenia, for instance a group of travelers from Germany, visited a village school in Armenia and led sport and team building exercise. you can read their story here.
From April 2015 - with agreement from SAP, we decided to make it an independent social startup outside the company and we are working on our business plan and strategies now. Once we implement the business model/funding in Armenia, we would do the same for the other 95 countries that are already involved."
Who’s involved: Who is in the team? Roles and responsibilities? Skillsets (what are individual team members good at?) Any partnerships?
"Right now there are a team of 10 motivated and international people:
Co-founders based in Germany: Miganoush - responsible for TeachSurfing Armenia, software developer (back-end). Gretta - responsible for organizational and legal areas, software developer (front-end)
Team Armenia: We got Armenoush who takes care of project coordination, Angela and Mariam who are the responsible of communications and Celina - designer (flyers, website, etc)
Team Germany: There are 3 more people in Germany - Marc business development and marketing responsible. Eva helping us with accounting and financial planning and Jose our expert web developer.
We also got Gaya in Sweden who has Armenian origin and takes care of funding applications. "
Hypothesis guiding the work: “I believe that to achieve x, we need to do y, through z”
"Our plan is to find a business model to be sustainable. We are working on a solution for corporates, offering some knowledge-exchange services for their employee. Another solution - crowdfunding/donating. We are working on a benefit section on the website where people can donate money for the project - this works just like on Couchsurfing, travelers contact with local people and see non touristic places in the country offering a workshop or a session in return. "
What your main objectives are/why you do this?
"TeachSurfing serves 2 kinds of users: On the one hand, any business or tourist traveler can sign up and create a profile. Part of that profile is a listing of their skills - from languages, computers, marketing, and management to sports, cooking, singing, art anything that can be of value to others – and information on upcoming travel destinations and dates. Once completed, you can browse voluntary teaching opportunities at your travel destination or explore opportunities on the integrated map and plan your route around voluntary teaching possibilities.
On the other hand, representatives of schools, NGOs and communities can create an organization profile page and post their learning needs. Then, they can invite registered travelers with the desired skills to run workshops or courses.
TeachSurfing creates value for all users. By connecting with travelers, locals can expand their network and develop skills that will help them find jobs, or inspire them to continue their studies. In return, the travelers will gain a unique and deeper social and cultural experience through direct contact with local people.
It is easy to blame educational systems and governments for a country’s educational problems. But we can all take action on an individual level today!
Another objective for Armenia is decentralizing the tourism - providing opportunities for travelers to go to non-touristic places. Everything is centered in Yerevan and people mostly visit the main touristic areas while most of the communities in remote areas never see a foreigner. We collaborate with IDeA (Initiatives for Development of Armenia) Foundation which has several projects aimed at developing tourism in Armenia."
What you enjoy about the work and what you enjoy less?
"I enjoy pushing the limits a little bit to have a bigger impact. Being a normal employee and trying to break this and do something more, working overtime,etc It all had a learning effect on me, even the worst situation taught me how to deal with the same kind of situation in a better way. In Armenia it feels like everybody tries to help which feels so good! We already have a big network and lots of positive feedback. Overall we are open to all kind of collaboration and it is amazing to meet new people every day.
I do not enjoy bureaucracy, I am happy that my other team-mates take care of it fortunately."
What kinds of tasks do you do on a regular basis? Yearly, monthly, weekly, daily
"Daily - Technical stuff, website, meetings with partners, network, planning how to target, strategy, content and design, everyone is new except her and Greta so that the rest of the team gets the message right.Currently I am focused on the project in Armenia and Gretta takes care of everything else.
Monthly - Applying for funding, at the moment we need some donors - European fundings, private funding, e.g. for Armenia we applied for Galust Gyulbenkian foundation. Fortunately they trusted me as a person as we are not registered yet and have no legal status.
We also have monthly discussions with the team to evaluate which direction we want to go and to make sure we are on the same page."
What, other than money, do you think could help you in your work?
"We are currently looking for an office space, most probably Impact Hub as it has a great networks. Networks of other start ups could be very helpful for us to motivate and learn from each other. We also need partners who would provide us space for our events.
There is a huge brain-drain from Armenia, so I think if companies would provide their space for TeachSurfing events and open their doors to the public, lots of local participants would come and maybe they would be attracted to stay and work here instead of looking for a job abroad. We want to attract the local talents for local companies. We are also looking for gift partners and donors - we can’t provide money but we can give gifts - printer, projector as a prize for TeachSurfing success stories.
We already have agreements with ARMIX, Microsoft, etc, and we want to partner with IT companies that could provide us with second hand equipment like printers, etc. We can not pay to our collaborators for providing space but we could provide them with the equipment they need instead. Lots of schools need IT equipment and it does not necessarily need to be brand new.
The biggest help we need is spreading the word about the project and visibility in order to have more members and ambassadors. Our perspective is to have everybody know what is TeachSurfing as an alternative possibility for travellers just like AirBnB or Couchsurfing."
What help could you offer others and under which conditions (assuming no money is involved)?
"We plan to give visibility to our ambassadors and offer them training possibilities in leadership, management, etc to build our ambassadors ground and keep the people helping us to have an impact motivated.
As we have an existing network of 980 TeachSsurfers from 95 countries, we can offer connections and networks all over the world. "
Technologies or processes used?
“We use Bitirx24 - collaboration tool, Google Drive. We also got Amazon Web Services (AWS) sponsoring the infrastructure of the website. They offered their services for 2 years.”
Costs: What expenses are involved? Who benefits from the work? Who currently supports it, how and why?
"AWS Activate program will cover the infrastructure costs of our website for the next 2 years. What we pay for is:
- Communication costs - recruiting the hosts and TeachSurfers.
- Software developer - website, adding new features, etc. We constantly need to upgrade the website as it has Facebook and other tools integrated and if they change something and we don’t, our website would not work properly.
- Accounting, tax consulting and resource costs. "
Existing alternatives: Who else is doing similar or relevant work/offering similar things- locally and or elsewhere?
There are lots of volunteer matching platforms(mostly based in US, less common in Europe) but they all require payments for organisation and the projects are normally long term but if one is professional and is not flexible with the time, then it will not work. We made a research and found 10 projects - 8 of them based in US. One in Germany. All of them provide donation and volunteer matching platform. What differentiate us is that we focus on offering flexible and free knowledge donation instead of money donation or long-term volunteering work.
Important players affecting the work? (locally and internationally)
"Personal connections and network. Mitost NGO that supports Eastern European projects(they supported Miganoush to write the first application and connected her with their NGOs). One Young World - Miganoush is an ambassador and they provide a large international network.
Social Impact Lab - Where Miganoush and Gretta got a scholarship offering them office space, access to expert mentors and coaches in Germany.
IT sector partners - UITE.org, Microsoft Innovation Center - they are our network/venue/gift partners
Long term perspective: any Business or sustainability plan?
“We want to include donations as a way of contributing on the website.”
Regulation and policy affecting this?
“We found out that in order to collaborate with the educational system in Armenia schools need an approval from the Ministry of Education. We know we need an official letter and we need a special authorisation to start collaborating with the school staff, hope we can get it easily.”
What does the concept of pooling resources mean to you?
"Nothing will happen without a network. We are open to everyone and it’s all about network and visibility we do not want to exclude anyone. "